I was copy-editing a report at work and came across the following sentence:

While sustainability in the transport sector was rated relatively high, the sustainability of the power sector was found to be weak.

The grammar nerd in me says this should be:

While sustainability in the financial and transport sector projects was rated relatively highly, the sustainability of the power sector was found to be weak.

Because after all, it feels more natural to say "The project was rated highly", rather than "The project was rated high."

But for some reason, I would feel more at ease saying "The project was rated relatively high." and not "The project was rated relatively highly.".

What is it about adding a "relatively" to this sentence that makes it different, when the fundamental syntax structure does not change? Adding one adverb in front of another doesn't automatically turn the former into an adjective does it? So why do I feel like it does here? Is "relatively" somehow unique relative to other adverbs? (see what I did there!)

  • The context matters... are they referring to economic stability within certain sectors? If so, adding "project" after doesn't work.
    – Othya
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 16:54
  • 1
    I would read that first statement as having dropped a word: "sustainability ... was rated [as] relatively high", which sounds fine to me. When you rate something on a scale of low to high, it's low to high, not highly to low. Keeping that in mind, it fits with the weak (not weakly). But it should be strong/weak, or high/low, not a mix. Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 17:12
  • Smells like a duplicate...
    – Drew
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 17:23
  • Rated high implies there is a scale for rating these things, and one of the labels is high, ie., low, medium, and high, with the bounds understood within the industry. That basically takes relatively high off the table for formal work. So decide whether you want to refer each sector's sustainability using a standard label, or compare them to one another on on relative grounds.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 17:48

1 Answer 1


These are two different topics:

If sustainability is rated high, this means that lots of new oil fields, power sources etc have been opened up and prospects of blackouts are low. The grammar of the first makes 'rated' a copula and 'high' an adjective. It is the same construction as 'is high' 'seems high' 'is perceived to be high.'

If sustainability is rated highly it means that it is held in high regard. Lots of papers will be published, grants for research funded, medals for progress dished out.
The grammar in this case makes 'rated' an active verb, and those who study the evaluation of these sectors see that there is much activity. The sector is being rated highly.

  • 2
    Right. "Rated Highly" sounds like a popularity context: it is how people respond to information. "Rated High" is about the information itself: a value in a scale. It could have been rated Green instead, and that condition would be rated highly by people who care. To people who don't care, it is still green or whatever just the same. If the UV level is rated high, that would be seen weakly by people wishing to go outdoors.
    – user126158
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 17:21
  • 1
    And as @medica points out, the "high" rating is subsequently paralleled with "weak" Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 17:26
  • @StoneyB Except that rated weakly is confusable with rated weekly. Grammar by the book would of course be sacrificed to meaning.
    – Hugh
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 17:30
  • 3
    @Hugh I'm on the side of high/weak rather than highly/weakly. Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 17:42
  • What @StoneyB said. I agree the potential distinction made in this answer, but in the specific context of OP's example it seems clear to me that sustainability is rated as being "high" in the transport sector, and that this is being contrasted with weak / low levels of sustainability in the power sector. So - right argument, wrong conclusion here. Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 17:49

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